No need for violence: peaceful methods work

AVPQ Newsletter (Alternatives to Violence Project Queensland), November 2007, pp. 4-5. Simon Sandall, guest editor of this issue, was the interviewer. He sent 11 questions to Brian Martin, who edited the questions, added some new ones and wrote responses to all of them. Portions of the resulting text published in the AVPQ Newsletter are given below in black; unpublished portions are indicated in purple. Simon Sandall requested that, for reasons of copyright, his unpublished questions not be posted here, so paraphrases are given.

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Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong. In this interview for AVPQ, he says nonviolent action is an increasingly popular means of attaining goals.

AVPQ NEWS: What's your conception of nonviolent action?

PROFESSOR BRIAN MARTIN: Nonviolent action is a broad category of action, including any nonroutine form of social or political action as long as it's not physically violent. It includes everything from leaflets and rallies to strikes, boycotts, vigils, sit-ins and alternative political institutions. If a method is routine, like public petitions in Australia, it wouldn't fit this definition - but a petition in China certainly would, or indeed an Australian workplace petition challenging the boss.

AVPQ: When was nonviolent action first used?

BM: No one knows! Certainly, it has been used for centuries, sometimes in major campaigns as in Hungary against the Austrian rulers in the mid 1800s and in Finland against Russian rulers 1898-1905. Gandhi, with his campaigns in South Africa and India in the first half of the 1900s, was the pioneer of strategic nonviolent action, understanding how nonviolent action works as part of a strategy for challenging oppression and repression. Since then, the strategic dimension - which means conscious planning to achieve goals in the face of obstacles - has become ever more important in nonviolent action.

AVPQ: Is nonviolent action a growing phenomenon in the world, would you say, and why or why not?

BM: Today, training in methods of nonviolent action takes place around the world and there are nonviolent campaigns big and small for all sorts of issues. At the large scale there are regime changes in countries like the Philippines, South Africa, East Germany and Serbia. At smaller scales there are untold local campaigns on environmental, workplace and women's issues, among others. Nonviolent action is definitely a growing phenomenon.

AVPQ: How did you become interested in nonviolence?

BM: In the early 1970s, I developed a belief in the value of people running their own lives, rather than being dominated by governments and corporations. But think of this: if there's no government, what can be done about defending a society against attack, in particular military attack? In the late 1970s I read about nonviolent action and immediately thought, "Here's the solution." With nonviolent action, people take charge of their own lives rather than rely on someone else to defend their interests.

AVPQ: What's your personal philosophy with regard to nonviolence and how it works?

BM: I'm a pragmatist. I want to explore how nonviolence can be used. But I can understand why people use violence, whether individually or in collective action such as in armies. Rather than condemn it, I'd rather say, "Let's see whether there are nonviolent options to achieve the same goals."

AVPQ: How did you get involved in the Schweik Action Wollongong, and what activities have you been involved in with the group?

BM: Let me go back a bit. In 1976, I joined Friends of the Earth Canberra and became involved in activism, mainly against uranium mining. One of the key issues was - and still is - proliferation of nuclear weapons via the nuclear fuel cycle. At that time there was no peace group in Canberra; FOE organised Hiroshima Day events. I gradually became interested in peace issues and helped set up Canberra Peacemakers in 1979. One of our members, Laurie Shane, was experienced with nonviolent action training, so we put a lot of effort into that and into social defence, which is nonviolent community resistance as an alternative to military defence.

In 1986, I moved to Wollongong. I met a couple of people and we set up a group to promote social defence. We eventually adopted the name Schweik Action Wollongong. The Good Soldier Schweik was a fictional character, in the novel of that name by Jaroslav Hasek, who as a soldier in the Austrian army in World War I pretended to be extremely stupid, thereby causing all sorts of difficulties for his superiors. The name "Schweik Action" is a whimsical combination of two concepts, the disruption associated with Schweik and goal direction associated with Action.

Over the years we've settled into a pattern of doing community research projects. We pick a topic that interests us, interview people about it and then produce a leaflet or article. For example, several years ago we interviewed Muslims in Wollongong, asking them about what skills, contacts and knowledge would help them resist attacks and prejudice. The impact of our projects is as much in the doing as the output. Local Muslims welcomed the opportunity to share their concerns and ideas with people who cared.

AVPQ: Can you tell more about social defence? Would it work in all situations, for example, against invasion or occupation, or is it a form of action appropriate for specific situations?

BM: Currently, social defence is just an idea and very far from a practical reality, so it's not possible to give definitive answers. Even the idea of using protests, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, fraternisation, alternative institutions and other nonviolent methods as an alternative to military defence is completely off the agenda. It is unknown to most people. When it's explained, it can be met with incredulity. Most people believe that the only way to counter violence is by superior violence.

There are numerous historical examples in which nonviolent action has been used to overthrow repressive regimes, such as in Eastern Europe in 1989, and several examples in which nonviolent action has stopped coups (Germany, 1920; Algeria/France, 1961; Soviet Union, 1991). However, there are only two major examples of nonviolent resistance against military invasions: Germany 1923 and Czechoslovakia 1968.

AVPQ: Why do you think that is?

BM: One of the problems is that no country has ever systematically prepared to use nonviolent resistance as the primary means of defence. If an army had no training, no plans or preparations and only improvised weapons, then no one would expect it to be very effective. So why should we expect nonviolence to be effective in defence when there's no training, no plans, no preparations and only improvised methods? We simply don't know what is possible.

What is obvious is that getting rid of military forces would be an excellent way of preventing military takeovers. Military defence doesn't work against coups - it makes them possible! There are lots of small countries without armies, which shows what is possible.

AVPQ: Why do you think social defence is so little known?

BM: It's not just social defence. Nonviolent action generally is little known and poorly understood. It is almost invisible in the news. How many people know about the numerous nonviolent protests by Israelis and Palestinians, when all that's in the news is stories of Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli military actions? Thousands of Hollywood movies feature violence compared to a mere handful that highlight nonviolence. History textbooks tell of armies, battles and empires, with less attention to people's struggles.

AVPQ: Governments seem very big on suppression of dissent these days, while projecting an image of transparency and accountability. What peaceful methods are open to people when everything seems sewn up this way by media- and PR-savvy governments?

BM: There are lots of ways to promote dissent. The challenge is to be effective. One way is to exercise dissent - by setting up a website, distributing leaflets, holding vigils, promoting boycotts - and being ready to publicise suppression, using publicity to generate greater support.

Humour can be quite effective. The Chaser 's stunt at the APEC meeting in Sydney in September - in which the ABC comedy unit surprisingly got through police lines by posing as a Canadian delegation - exposed the government's overblown security measures.

I recently wrote an article, "Energising dissent," that looks at tactics against suppression in Australia.

Paraphrase of Simon Sandall question: What about suppression of dissent in China? How can nonviolent action be used there?

BM: The most famous example is the 1989 pro-democracy movement. The Chinese government crushed the protests but it is still paying a diplomatic cost for its actions. Since then, the Falun Gong movement has arisen. The Chinese government, by repressing it as subversive, seems to have turned in into an opposition force. Another example is Internet protest.

Paraphrase of Simon Sandall question: Can these actions bring about greater democracy in China?

BM: Nonviolent action undoubtedly offers the best prospect for a peaceful transition to a more democratic China. The Chinese people will have to play a leading role in this, but we shouldn't assume that no one else has any responsibility. Unfortunately, the Chinese government gains legitimacy as well as trading opportunities from numerous foreign governments and corporations. A nonviolent strategy against Chinese repression must include citizen action from around the world.

AVPQ: Can you recommend a few books on nonviolent action?

BM: The classic book is Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Gene has a new book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, which summarises the same points and includes recent case studies. Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall's book A Force More Powerful is a good introduction. You can also obtain videos of the television series that the book accompanied. There's also a video game titled A Force More Powerful, for developing skills in strategic nonviolence thinking.

Actually, there are dozens of good books, and different ones will suit different people. Unfortunately, only a few of these are on the web, which is where a lot of people go to find material. It's worth looking at the online bibliography "People Power and Protest since 1945: a bibliography on nonviolent action ," at

Paraphrase of Simon Sandall question: What do your students think about nonviolent action and pacifism?

BM: I teach a class titled "Media, war and peace," in which students - most doing communication and media studies - have a choice to look at theories and concepts concerning peace, war, violence and nonviolence, ranging from assassination and aggression to reconciliation and sit-ins. I don't lecture on any of these: the students choose their topics and look up information for themselves. Those who look at pacifism and nonviolent action acquire a good understanding of them, and sometimes are attracted to them. On the other hand, I've never noticed any students who, by studying topics such as torture and genocide, develop the slightest sympathy for them.

AVPQ: What issues are of major concern to you, and how do you apply anti-violence and pacificist action to them?

BM: My main interest in recent years is on tactics against injustice. I've developed a framework called the backfire model. When powerful groups do something that can be perceived as unjust, they typically use one or more methods to reduce popular outrage: cover up the action, devalue the target, reinterpret what happened, use official channels to give an appearance of justice, and use intimidation and bribery. I was inspired to develop this framework by considering what Gene Sharp calls "political jiu-jitsu", when violent attacks on peaceful protesters recoil against the attackers. I analysed the tactics by perpetrators to inhibit this sort of reaction. If you know what perpetrators are likely to do, you can formulate better strategies.

The same process can happen in other areas, well outside the violence-versus-nonviolence scenario, whenever people perceive something as unfair, such as censorship, job dismissals, sexual harassment, bullying at work, environmental disasters, invasions and terrorism. Personally, my concern is to get a handle on effective tactics and to encourage others to think strategically. Having principles is certainly important, but we need to be as effective as possible in promoting them.

To access Brian Martin's website, put his name into Google.